The Onward March of Academies – Will They Make Our Schools Better?


H block and A block - Edlington Comprehensive School
Image by aldisley via Flickr

The Telegraph tells us that half of all secondary schools have converted, or are in the process of converting, to Academies.

Lord Hill, the Schools Minister, said: “In academies, head teachers – not politicians or bureaucrats – are in charge of what happens in the school. I am delighted that the majority of secondary schools in England are seizing this independence by becoming an academy.

“With greater freedoms, these state funded schools can truly meet the needs of local parents and pupils.”

Academies are schools that are funded directly from central government, rather than being funded by Local Education Authorities (a.k.a. local councils). To be more accurate, central government takes the money from local education authorities and gives it to the Academies. The Academies get a little more funding than normal State schools, but have to provide for themselves the services that local authorities provide for normal State schools.

Academies are set up with a “sponsor”, who pays a small part of the capital cost for the school. That sponsor might be a large company, a charitable organisation, or even an individual. That sponsor is supposed to take an interest in the running of the school, and has the right to appoint governors to the school governing body.

The head teachers of Academies also have more authority over the curriculum and the running of the school than head teachers of normal State schools do.

The Academy programme was set up by Tony Blair’s government, but was supported from the start by the Conservatives, and is now supported by the Liberal Democrats as well.

That in itself sets alarm bells ringing. Initiatives with cross-party support are often wrong-headed. After all, with no party opposing, the opportunity for effective political challenge to the initiative is limited, and its failings can go unremarked. What is more, such policies that are championed by successive governments often turn out to be the policies of the bureaucracy rather than the policies of elected representative government.

On the other hand, perhaps we should celebrate a political consensus on the way forward to overhaul our education system. And the opposition of teaching unions has more to do with the threat to the collective bargaining power of the unions, than it does with educational standards.

It is pretty clear that the government’s eventual aim is to abolish local education authorities. Once almost all schools have converted, and we are well on the way to that, the LEA’s will serve little useful purpose. The case for their abolition will become compelling.

There is a problem with that though. LEA’s don’t only run schools. That is the main part of their function, but not the only part. They are also responsible for the admissions system, and importantly, have the legal responsibility to provide a school place for all children. There will still be a need for that function.

I suspect, therefore, that we will see LEA’s being replaced by something like local school boards. The big danger is that those boards will be set up as subsidiaries of the Department for Education, rather than of local councils. Once that happens, they will begin to agitate for more powers over schools. They will argue that they need those powers to fulfil their duty to ensure education for all. That agitation will not be in public, where the press and the public can stand up against it. It will be done behind the scenes, in cosy chats with their fellow bureaucrats in Whitehall.

Conservatives appear to think that the end game is a system of free and independent schools, funded by grants from Whitehall based on the number of pupils they attract, and inspected by Ofsted to ensure standards,

The actual end game may well be a National Education Service, organised along exactly the same lines as the National Health Service currently is. Those local school boards would look remarkably like local health authorities do, and the Academies would look remarkably like Hospital Trusts. Our education system could well end up not only failing, but almost completely unaccountable as well, just like the NHS.

There is, of course, another way. Education vouchers have been proposed for years, and universally rubbished by the education experts who have wrecked our school system. In that system, every child gets a voucher to the value of a State education. They can spend it on a school place in a State school, in which case it covers the full cost. Or they can spend it on a private school education – in which case they would have to top up its value to the price of the private school place.

The bureaucrats don’t like that. It would bring real competition into the system and expose their own failings. The stampede of kids out of the State schools would give the lie to the idea that the people are happy with the education system that the bureaucrats have provided.

The other side of that coin is the reintroduction of grammar schools. Critics of the selective education system claim that it brands children who fail the 11-plus as “failures”, and that concentration on the grammar schools means that all the other schools become second rate.

The truth in practice is the reverse. The standards in grammar schools are extremely high – often higher even than those in private schools. Crucially, in areas where grammar schools are still retained, the presence of the grammar schools actually seems to lift the performance of the other schools. You end up with elite grammar schools, and other schools scrambling to prove that they are good enough even for bright pupils to attend.

This is true, for example, in Warwickshire, whereas in neighbouring Northamptonshire, the comprehensive schools are so poor that the local education authority took legal action to try and stop people living near the border sending their kids across to grammar schools in Warwickshire.

The Conservative Party used to believe in grammar schools, until it was hijacked by the Cameroons. In 2005, they went into the general election with a policy of “a grammar school in every town”. Today their policy is to keep the existing law, where it is illegal to open a new grammar school. David Cameron called grammar school supporters “intellectually self-indulgent”. He feels more in common with the bureaucrats who run the education system, than he does with ordinary people who can see that selective education works.

Tory Party leaders might say, “Ah yes, but we got heavily defeated in 2005, and in 2010, with the new policy, we won!”

Actually, in 2005 Michael Howard’s Tories got 31.7% of the vote, and ended up with 198 – 31% – of the seats. A fair result. In 2010, David Cameron managed 36.1% of the vote and got 306 – 47% – of the seats. Their vote was only up a little – their much better result in terms of seats was down to Britain’s rigged electoral system. There is no evidence from that result of any enthusiasm for them from the electorate.

The Tories are busy changing constituency boundaries because the current system, they say, is unfair to them – whereas the truth is that the current system with the current boundaries gave them 71 more seats than their vote share warrants!

But back to schools.

The current Academies policy, supported by the three old parties, could end up with a good system – or it could easily make things worse.

A really serious reform of our school system would include education vouchers and support for new grammar schools. And that just so happens to be the policy of UKIP, and anathema to the Tories.

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